Karoo Morning, an autobiography 1918-35 Guy Butler

Karoo Morning.          An autobiography 1918 – 1935

Guy Butler

guy-butlerkaroo-morning-coverMy copy is David Philip, Africasouth Paperback 1981 edition, third impression 1983.   There has been slightly more recent publishing but not revised edition.

My copy is marked up for sections to be extracted, sadly can’t say for what journal, paper or purpose but it adds character to the paperback.

The preface alone is worth reading as reason to look to Guy Butlers writing as a white South African who was born in a small town in the Karoo and remained steadfast in his country until his death          He loved his country, it’s huge expanse and environment, all its variety of people, story and folklore, his family.  All these things were an integral part of his being.

At the start he says (in 1977):

‘Much of the literature  by white South Africans is guilt-laden and self-condemnatory, and there are good reasons why it should be so; but where praise is possible it should be uttered.  The man who has known joy and keeps it to himself is a miser’.


And a clear, comment on his idea of written autobiographies:

‘Two points about the nature of autobiography.

     First, it’s main source is the writers memory, which is soon discovered to be highly temperamental in what portions of the past it selects for conscious attention, and what portions it leaves in the limbo of it idiosyncratic amnesia.

     One can, of course, supplement ones memory by appeals to members of one’s family, friends and contemporaries, and to written records: history books, newspapers, photographs, family papers, particularly old letters – all of which I have done, with great interest and considerable profit.  By such means, faces, incidents, scenes which seemed partially or entirely forgotten, have been swept clean of oblivion’s dust; others, which the memory of reliable witnesses and the written record insist were there, remain stubbornly obscure.

    Second, while making every effort to get the facts right, ones main concern is not with truth to fact and measurement, but to character, feeling, mood and vision.  Autobiography, which would seem to be so close a cousin to history, is less an objective record of a life than an attempt to communicate the writer’s feeling for his life as lived’

It is a large chunk to include from the Preface.  The final paragraph is the most important for me but without the record and action of the first two the relevance may be weaker.  I could have been satisfied with the last sentence.

When you listen to a story-teller, a teacher, parent or friend you hear the words and meanings but take much information from their tone, their speaking rhythm, their body language. So too when reading such as Guy Butler, the rhythm and tone of the writing catches and retains your interest.

He admits from the start that he made use of as many records, letters and memories of his now extended family as he could, to fill the pages of Karoo Morning  because  his forebears were very early English settlers in South Africa, mostly in the Karoo region.   (and those still in England, Stoke on Trent, and America as well as China!); with his personal memories and retelling of stories from his many elders there becomes visible a huge panarama of the region.  Regional history that is political as well as personal.  From his early childhood he seems to have been observant in sight and sound and by delving into this past has been able to recount with a lifetime’s passion and understanding the nature of society.  His belonging to a large family ranging throughout the Karoo meant at times he travelled widely, visiting relatives in differing areas and degrees of their settling. His family was based in Cradock and their nearest bigger town was Grahamstown,  The individual families all had very strong beliefs as Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and Anglican and various experiences as preachers, farmers of crops, livestock and horses, shopkeepers, newspaper journalists and publishers. All have been absorbed by Guy Butler for this book.  His enthusiasm for the country and its people, nature and stories has come to fruition with an invaluable legacy of and to South Africa.   His poetry and regional stories I am well aware of and this fascinating book adds an intricate layer of knowledge (for want of a better word) about his world up to 1935..

(I am soon to read ‘On first seeing Florence‘ his long poem finally rewritten,  completed and published as a pamphlet in 1964)


The early chapters of Karoo Morning  work through the first arrivals of his forebears, great and grandparents and meeting of his parents, his mother moving from a village near Stoke on Trent, Stone. (I have visited Stoke on Trent and it’s various attached pottery towns such as Longton many times over the last twenty years, visiting Stone briefly three times.   The centre of Stone may not have changed too much in the last fifty years but I suspect Stoke on Trent and surrounding towns would be unrecognisable except for an occasional municipal building. The pottery kilns that once turned the air smoke-black are gone except for two museum remnants and many of the great red-brick factories are gone or going. Again with a very few exceptions.)


He writes of the rough and tumble of children in the late 1920s where exploits are real and exciting as they happen in surroundings of which I am jealous.   (Yes, I understand rose coloured glasses may be useful).   The descriptions of the scenery as well as the events is superb.  One episode concerning bees whilst camping had me laughing out loud whilst the following events written of touched the heart:    A seemingly incongruous burial that is described and explained and finally fills you with a surprising emotion.

Throughout the book, his story, his family story of life moves on, not with any huge momentous event it would seem but with what life throws at you as it progresses. And then those nuggets of events which fill gaps in Time’s fractured picture of far away places to create images of similarity despite the huge differences between the hedged softness of southern England and the clarity of the air of lweather-scaped Karoo.  Even Guy Butler’s brief description of Natal, as different to Karoo as may be but different still to my old scenery.

No easy childhood through the depression from 1929 onwards but his eye, in recollection, stays firmly on the reality of life and bright observation of scenery and people around him.  Some adventures almost out of ‘Boy’s Own’ with the addition of strong family ties and values to secured by.  Yes, this story is an element of South Africa that defines a period and way of life.

Moving on into the book and toward the beginnings of the agonies of apartheid and the conflict to it of the still firm beliefs of the Quakers, Methodists and Baptists in the area, which included the now ever-larger families of Butler, Collett and Biggs spread widely over the Karoo.   Guy tells of his direct family and the pressures of the depression, continuing desperate shortage of money with his father’s businesses suffering badly.  As was much of the local, national and of course international economies.

Also we hear how Guy loosens his interest on all things Natural History and begins to take interest in poetry, chemistry, and girls. Mention of his first long poem entitled ‘The Karoo’ shown to his teacher……(1934?) I wonder if this is a forerunner to or starter for his poem Karoo Town 1939.

This could continue as an outline of the book, but I won’t, what I wish to convey is the brightness of the writing about a childhood, overall happy, it seems, in difficult times and a starkly beautiful country.  Adventures, humorous and not, with what seems straightforward honesty of the facts as he could remember and research them.

Enough to say the book finishes with the European political storm clouds growing in intensity and affect in South Africa; and Matriculation and the thoughts of University having a similar affect on Guy.  All this with the weight of the family’s financial position obvious to Guy but not fully understood until the last couple of pages of this autobiography when Guy is seventeen and has to make a big decision.

There are numerous black and white photographs of the earlier family members, houses, streets and places, even an aerial view of the town Cradock of about 1938.

A fascinating glimpse of a country that has intrigued me for a lifetime.  Superb writing about a place, now almost a hundred years ago, from an observant poet and writer with a clear and balanced South African eye.